I’ve been on two small road trips in the last 2 weeks and on multiple occasions, while giving my right foot a much needed rest, I got to wondering: Is my car thinking when it changes speeds whilst set to cruise control? I’ve had this debate with my wife in the past but it’s been a few years, and I feel the need to resurrect it. I don’t really know the answer to this question. It seems like, obviously, that it isn’t thinking. But it’s not that easy to explain why. When we look at the process that occurs prior to a car changing its speed, and all of the factors involved, it appears very similar to the processes that we go through when making a decision of our own. And when we look at these similarities, it seems more difficult to maintain that there is a difference between my thought processes and my Sebring’s.
There are three factors at work in the most common Cruise Control system. This system is called the Proportional-Integral-Derivative Control, or a PID Control. The proportional control simply detects when the speed the car is travelling is higher, or lower, than the set desired speed. If it is different, the control will either open, or close, the throttle more. The Integral control is there to detect the time error. That is, the difference between the distance your car actually travelled, over a set amount of time, and the distance it would have travelled were it going the set desired speed. If you drive up a hill and your car slows down, the integral control will eventually detect this and open the throttle to increase your speed. This is because the distance error will have increased due to the slower speed. Finally, the derivative control is the control that detects any change in speed, also referred to as “acceleration.” If acceleration is detected, this control will immediately adjust the vehicle’s speed appropriately.
If we remove talk of the complex brain processes that also are occurring while we make a decision, it seems that the PID control is at least as complicated as some of our more basic decision making processes. Take, for an example, that we are walking down the sidewalk on our way to work. As we are walking we come across a blocked off section of concrete which has only recently been replaced and which we are not to be walking on. Seeing that we cannot continue to walk in a straight line along the sidewalk, we make the decision to veer off of the sidewalk and onto the street for a few moments until we have passed the blocked off section. After which, we step back onto the sidewalk and continue on until some other obstacle arises.
This example seem suspiciously similar to the operation of Cruise Control. Complex explanation aside, what is happening when a car is set on cruise control and the vehicle changes its speed? Basically, a car is told to travel at a certain speed, the car arrives at a hill and consequently slows its speed. The vehicle recognising that its speed has changed, makes an adjustment. Seems very plain, the car is supposed to do something, it is being hindered, so it makes an adjustment. Just like while we are walking on the sidewalk and the obstacle hinders us, we then had to make an adjustment.
I’m not suggesting that Cruise Control is comparable to any sort of complex human thought processes, merely that it is an example of a lower sort of process that looks a lot like one we may go through at any given time. The sort of process that we may not even realize we are going through at that time. When it comes down to it, the ability to take in information and make an adjustment to our actions based upon that information, that is thinking. And a car does this. It goes through this process. My wife will likely roll her eyes again if she reads this post and I will most likely write a response to this post based on some of the counterarguments that she, and myself, come can up with. Nevertheless, they will have to be some very serious arguments to contend with this apparent similarity between our thinking and my Sebring’s. And if it turns out that Cruise Control is even remotely equivalent to our most simple thought processes, then we will have to accept that perhaps our cars are smarter than we give them credit for.